“I was filming from the first moment,” says Aida Elkashef, Egyptian filmmaker and one of a handful of major players in Jehane Noujaim’s
colossal documentary The Square. The film, told through the camera lenses of the revolutionaries themselves, documents the monumental Egyptian Revolution of 2011; from the eighteen- day sit-in that ended the long reign of President Hosni Mubarak, to the controversial rise to power of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the subsequent military coup d’état that would lead to the current dictatorship of Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
A decade since its original release in 2013 (though Noujaim
released an updated version of the doc in 2014 to better reflect the latest developments of the uprising), the film brought international attention to the uprising and garnered multiple awards and nominations in the process, including an Oscar nod for Best Documentary and the bizarre honour of being banned in Egypt.
In retrospect, the film’s award recognition is just a slither of the actual impact of the film. It is, to this day, one of the most enduring examples of how the art of shooting a moving image can inspire change, not only due to its ground-zero documentation of th uprising, but as a small reflection of the larger strategy of utilising filmmaking as a tool of resistance.
For Aida, it was second nature. She was one of the first activists to hit the sit-in on January 25th, setting up her tent in a then-barren Tahrir Square with a few other soon-to-be revolutionaries. A recent graduate from film school, it was only natural that Aida would be filming the first rumblings of an uprising that would change the course of her life, as well as the lives of many others.
It started out as any other protest, she tells me, on a call from her home in Cairo. “It wasn’t that I took the camera because I thought this would be the protest that would change everything, but because I never moved without my camera anyway.”
Raised by revolutionary parents, Aida was no stranger to protesting. The sit-in on January 25th came after the mass protests incited following the death of Khaled Saeed in police custody several months earlier (an indicator of a growing frustration with the dictatorship). Still, something felt different this time: “I don’t know how to explain it. It was an unconscious shared feeling among Egyptians. It’s not something that I can touch or explain, it was just in the air.” Soon, Tahrir Square had filled with everyone from leftists to ex-communists. The revolution had begun.
Filming The Revolution: Told Through The Lens of Khalid Abdalla
Although it wouldn’t be until February that Jehane would enter the scene with intentions of making The Square, there was a movement of film in Egypt that had been steadily bubbling to the surface for a while, and was poised to spill into the uprising. Enter Khalid Abdalla, a name that many reading might recognise from acclaimed appearances in The Kite Runner and United 93, or his most recent gig as Dodi Fayed in The Crown. Making a respected name for himself in Hollywood, the repeated narrative is that the actor abandoned his blossoming career to join the fight in Tahrir Square.
The reality, Khalid tells me, is quite the opposite: “The whole time I was fighting for film in Egypt, and through Egypt.” Khalid had just returned to London after over two years filming a passion project (In the Last Days of the City); six weeks before the first sit-in at the square.
By the time Khalid crossed paths with Jehane, and The Square, he was already involved in various projects supporting the film scene in Egypt. Fatefully, his passion project would further entwine him in the filming of The Square. Mosireen (meaning ‘Egypt is Determined’) is a film collective gathered to document, transmit and archive images and footage of the rapidly expanding revolution. The collective capitalised on the internet to share real-time updates on the status of the uprising, a necessary alternative to the regime-controlled version of events reported by the media. The maturation of the project came a few weeks after the fall of Mubarak.
Despite his resignation, the prime-minister remained in power, and a demonstration was organised in Tahrir Square to begin another sit-in demanding his removal. “At the time there was this narrative that the army were the protectors of the revolution,” Khalid says, “And that night, on the 25th of February, the army came and violently removed us. That night produced almost no images.”
What was clear to Khalid was that an infrastructure was needed to tell the people’s side of the story, but his own technical experience was limited. He didn’t have cameras. He didn’t have production facilities. He didn’t know how to upload a video to YouTube. “It became a whole series of questions around, firstly, how do we organise ourselves? The shock [from the events on 25th February], in a sense, drew a lot of us together, to work together with a renewed effort. Gradually we began to gather filmmakers, activists, and various others who knew, on a technical level, how to bring our story alive.”
If someone was to ask me to point to a moment across the last decade of cinema that best embodies ‘the power of film,’ it might just be a short sequence in The Square where Khalid screens what he calls ‘Cinema Tahrir’ to thousands of protesters at a sit-in around ten months after the start of the revolution.
The footage is hard to watch, showing the brutalisation of the revolutionaries during a peaceful protest after the military regime had taken control. As he presents the movie, Khalid adds “The most beautiful thing about the square is that everyone who comes here follows his conscience, not some political force.” With Mosireen and the filming of The Square running so close in parallel, it was a matter of time before Khalid got caught up in the latter, despite his initial hope to remain behind the camera. “As far as I’m aware, I wasn’t initially a character, and I had no desire to be. I was engaged in film in a very different way. What I want here is to be giving my body to this, not to reflect as if I’m more important than other people.” As fate would have it, though, Khalid’s wife, Cressida Trew, a filmmaker in her own right, happened to be one of the principal cinematographers for The Square. “My wife was filming, and my father was ill, and we didn’t know if he would survive or not survive, so there would be these moments where I would be at home and she would be filming me, for what seemed to be our private moments, but of course they’d end up on the same SD card as the footage from The Square. So, obviously Jehane ended up seeing that stuff, and I became a character.”
Slowly, the cast and crew began to take shape—each character experiencing the revolution in their own unique way, while Jehane and her team captured it all with the urgency and spirit of an entire movement. “I make films because I see something that I believe must be shared with the world—even if it is just a glimpse or a taste of it. The dedicated revolutionaries that are still fighting in Egypt may seem like they’re a world away, but when you hear them and see them, you see that they are closer than you ever imagined,” she says in a letter published in 2013, encouraging donations to The Square’s Kickstarter page.
In retrospect, Jehane was always in the right place at the right time; uncovering a set of characters who show diversity in their perspectives of the movement. Khalid Abdalla, a reluctant but natural leader who sees with clear eyes what Egypt could be; Aida, a young and ambitious graduate working out her own political identity in real time; Ahmed Hassan, who, in many ways, is the heart and soul of the film; Magdy Ashour, a revolutionary who gets caught between loyalty to his fellow comrades and his obligation to the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ramy Essam, ‘The Voice Of The Revolution’. It’s a stage that reflects the organic community built inside Tahrir square: a place that allowed for a sundry of ages and talents to unite together.
The Voice of The Revolution: Told Through The Lens of Ramy Essam
Though his true home will always be Egypt, Ramy Essam is calling me from Finland, where he’s been exiled for the past eight years. The circumstances of his banishment take the kinds of twists and turns that make light work of Murphy’s Law—imprisonment, interrogation, death threats—his departure from the motherland largely stemming from the compulsory military service that loomed over him following the events seen in the film. “In the years since the revolution started until 2014,” he tells me, “I was receiving constant, brutal threats from army officers that I will become a soldier one day, and that when I do, they will be able to do whatever they want to me. I had to escape.” It wouldn’t be the first time the regime set out to make an example of Ramy. A key turning point in the story of The Square features a video testimony from the musician detailing the brutalisation he, and around two-hundred others, experienced at the hands of the regime. The crime? A peaceful protest. “We were just singing,” he recalls. But his punishment felt personal. “They were calling me ‘Ramy’. They knew my name, and they were punishing me for my songs.”
Face beaten black and blue, back cut to ribbons, Ramy maintains that the assault was ultimately a moment of empowerment, and confirmation of a long-suspected truth about the army. “It made me believe more in the power of the music as a peaceful weapon to fight back. I was the one being tortured, but I could see their fear. I could see how evil they were. This was early in the revolution, and the army was still playing neutral. It was good to understand, finally, that these people were not on our side. And to see that, for all their soldiers and tanks and weapons, they were scared of us.” Two weeks later, he was back onstage with a renewed sense of purpose, and one hundred-thousand people opened their ears to him.
“There’s Ramy’s music, and then there was the example that was made of him, which made him important in that way,” says Khalid, when I ask him about the significance of that moment. It’s clear the reverence his comrades have for him, with Khalid also likening him to a modern day Sheikh Imam, the revered anti-government composer.
Like Imam, Ramy’s artistic path has seen him encounter both tremendous enlightenment and hardship. On the one hand, the revolution put him on a trajectory to become one of the most vital political voices in music. In 2014, Time Out magazine named his song Irhal [Leave] the third in their list of one-hundred songs that changed history (behind Do They Know It’s Christmas and Public Enemy’s Fight The Power).
The song is an anthem born out of the community built by protesters during the early-days of the sit-in, with Essam taking inspiration from the chants he would hear as he wandered between tents with his guitar. The song’s popularity would factor into Mubarak’s eventual resignation—the first victory for the revolution. To this day, Ramy cites that first performance of Irhal, seen in the film, is one of the most powerful moments in his life.
“I don’t think I’ll ever experience a feeling like that again in my entire life as an artist,” he says, “…unless, of course, it happens again.” Being the voice of a movement means having a target on your back—as well as the back of those who are closest to you.
In March 2018, filmmaker Shady Habash, along with eight others, were unjustly imprisoned by the regime for involvement in directing the music video for Ramy’s song Balaha. After almost eight-hundred days in Cairo’s Tora prison, he passed away. The official cause of death is alcohol poisoning by hand sanitiser, though the truth is almost certainly linked to medical negligence by the regime.
“He was one of my closest friends, and he was like a younger brother,” Ramy says, “…He was an amazingly talented photographer and filmmaker, full of life…he died at a very young age without having the chance to reach his dreams.”
I ask him whether I should omit Shady’s name from the piece out of respect. His reply is assured and simple: If there’s ever an opportunity to speak power to his friend’s name, we should never hesitate to take it.
I find a lot to admire in Ramy. Akin to the great stoics, he accepts the hardships and sacrifices that come with a fight for liberation—whether it’s the loss of a good friend, or the loss of citizenship. The slight quiver in his voice, as he mentions Shady’s name, is more than enough proof that he accepts and honours those losses accordingly, fuelling his belief that art is the secret weapon of the revolution: “They can jail me, they can oppress me, they can prevent me from performing, they can ban my music from radio and TV, but they will never be able to come inside my head and stop my creative process of writing a song.”
Operation Anti-Sexual Assault: Told Through The Lens of Aida Elkashef
As much as it is an unflinching gut-punch, it quickly becomes clear during these conversations that watching The Square is akin to a child peeking through the keyhole of a locked door, or hearing echoes of a grand symphony from outside of a concert hall. There’s as much information about the revolution that can possibly be packed into two hours, though by nature it can only capture a small glimpse at a much wider canvas.
Khalid muses, “It remains a primary entry point for many people who didn’t live that moment, capturing very well the energy of what we were fighting for. As someone who lived it, of course you were more aware of what’s missing from it. ”
It’s less a criticism of the film than it is a prompt to the audience to use it as a gateway for further reading. One of the most essential threads absent from the doc is an epidemic of sexual assault that many of the women of the revolution found themselves experiencing. “For me, as a feminist, I wasn’t really in the mindset of dividing the issues in my head,” says Aida, “we were focusing on the main demands, which were social justice and freedom. A part of it was women’s rights, but it was never shaped as part of the bigger demand.”
In retrospect, that line of thought seems naive to Aida, who walks me through the story between tokes of hookah. But as a young revolutionary learning on the job, when the assaults began at a 2012 protest, it was a hard wake-up call: “They started and they never stopped. It was at that moment I realised that gender should not be assumed to be a part of the equation of the larger demands. It should be on the forefront as a singular cause. What does freedom mean for different marginalised groups? As such, women came to the forefront for me.”
Controlled anger underlines every word. She describes what a mass assault of this kind looks like: circles of men equipped with knives and swords surrounding one or two women at a time. The attacks were assumed at first to be a deranged tactic on the part of the regime, but as they became more frequent, and the circles larger in size, the realisation dawned that it couldn’t have just been the regime’s hired thugs. And even if none of the revolution’s own were taking part in the assaults, there were certainly some, supposedly on the side of freedom, who were happy to enable them.
“The issue we faced that was more cruel than the crime itself was how many of our political comrades refused us when we asked for their help and tried to call for meetings. They said they wouldn’t denounce the assaults publicly as it would defame the reputation of the square. For me, that was a betrayal. It meant, yet again, that women had not only been sidelined politically but their safety had also been sidelined.”
For Aida and a small group of comrades, it became a matter of taking the fight into their own hands, establishing their own initiative called Operation Anti-Sexual Assault to combat future incidents. The objective was simple: get the women out of the circle as quickly and safely as possible. The strategy depended on four groups. The first was a spy group, positioned at different locations around the square friends’ apartments, nearby rooftops—to surveil the protest for any large circles forming; from here, they would alert the combat team, who would infiltrate the circle, grab the girl and escort them out of the circle (without getting stabbed in the process) to a third group sitting in various safe-cars dotted around the area, kitted out with first aid and spare clothes.
Finally, the cars would drive to one of the initiative’s safe houses stationed outside the square, where the woman would be given the option of psychological and legal support. “That was the initiative I’m most proud of in this entire revolution. I made a public video to tell people what was happening…we actually got a lot of volunteers who were anti- revolution but wanted to help the women.” The feminist movement in Egypt is one of the only strands of the uprising that is currently allowed to thrive in the present day. The word ‘feminism’ doesn’t hold the same negative connotation it used to among the culture. Today, you can hear it being debated everyday on the streets of Cairo.
A Taste of Freedom: Told Through The Lens of The Revolutionaries
It’s no easy task to properly contextualise the events of the uprising with everything that has happened since. There’s a short poem by Egyptian revolutionary Alaa Abd el-Fattah, titled Half an Hour with Khaled, that details the love and longing he feels for his son as a political prisoner in Egypt. At the time of writing this, he is still being held. He writes, “We rejoice at a wedding, because it is a marriage. We grieve at a funeral, because it is death. We love a newborn because he is human. We go to the square to discover that we love life outside of it, and to discover that our love for life is resistance. We love life, and we walk into prison because we love freedom.”
In a few short sentences, Alaa summarises the reasons and the consequences of the fight. His imprisonment is one of many injustices brought upon the people during military reign, but in many ways, Egypt is suffering to a degree that is unprecedented even in the days prior to Mubarak’s resignation.
“[The current regime] is not as predictable,” says Aida. “Mubarak knew his game, he knew the limit, he knew when he was crossing it. Now, nothing is clear—their actions are random, that itself is their tactic, and a very successful one. It seems like there’s a lot of things that they have a green light to do without facing any consequences from the greater powers of the world.”
Sisi seems determined to make it as hard as possible for the people to unite like they did over a decade ago, strategically moving the capital from Cairo fifty-kilometres into the middle of nowhere, where he is building a new capital city (with money he doesn’t have). Relocating the capital away from the city, and away from Tahrir Square, not only makes it more difficult for protests to be organised and to thrive, but the infrastructure itself is inherently anti-community.
“The new private compounds are not places for communities to be built. So you won’t know your neighbours,” Aida says. But Khalid is more optimistic, likening the situation to King Louis XIV moving his court to Versailles: “You don’t stop people wanting change by building different looking cities. People will just find different ways to fight for a better world.”
Despite the situation being more dire than ever, none of the revolutionaries I speak to are under any delusions of what the present reality is, and they are quick to remind me of why the revolution was an imperfect, but necessary, movement. To many of them, I submit my favourite line of dialogue in The Square, a response from Ahmed Hassan on why the revolution was worthwhile: “If you ask me what the revolution’s biggest victory is, it’s that kids today play a game called ‘protest’.”
After speaking briefly to Ahmed, his mind is unchanged. For a young man like him—who, working at Vodafone at the time, would, even then, be rallying his colleagues together to protest for workers’ right—the 25th January sit-in represented a calling he had never felt before. Ramy echoes his sentiments: “The revolution gave us the chance to breathe real freedom for the first time in our lives.”
Aida, notably one of the few from the movement who have remained in Egypt in recent years (many have left out of necessity for their safety, livelihoods, or simply just to live a life of normality) has less of a romantic notion of events, but emphasises the importance of filmmaking as a way to keep her memory of that period. “I realise now I go back to the footage for me to remember what happened, and that kind of keeps me sane,” she says, “Because your memory can become blurry, and with all the trauma that has happened and the sadness we’re experiencing now…For me, having all this footage that I and others filmed—it connects me back to that moment, to remember why I was there in the first place.”
The revolution isn’t over, Khalid assures me, and he doesn’t regret a thing. “Above all… we were living. It is a great thing to be living in your skin, in the world, with purpose, in a moment that you’ve dreamt of and have been dreaming of for generations.” It’s a crucial perspective to consider: the revolution as an intergenerational arc.
We discuss how the battle for civil rights wasn’t won in a year or a decade. He tells me of his grandfather and father, who were both political prisoners, fighting for the same dream that this generation has been fighting for. For Khalid and the revolutionaries, the time spent in the square remains a formative moment of political consciousness, to which one never loses allegiance. “I’m still processing it. In my work, in my decisions, in my friendships, in my relationships. With you, right here, now. It remains, for me, something to live for, and live with.”